Fighter All Weather (FAW) of the Fleet Air Arm.

The Night Glow Worm Attack.

Article by Lt. Martyn H. Dean RN. 1965/1977

  • This Night Attack claimed many crews.
  • It was a requirement at the time for Royal Navy aircraft to attack enemy surface fleets/ships by day or night, in defence of the Fleet.
  • A Division of 4 aircraft would practice this attack at night with a friendly target ship
  • The ship would tow a target astern at approx 1000 meters. The target would produce a plume of water and was called a splash target. This can been seen in some gallery pictures on this site.
  • The Division would form up using radar in long line astern, Observer controlling, at 1000 meter intervals at 500 feet over the sea and 360 kts for fuel economy. The aircraft were armed with four 3" Gloworm Illuminating flare rockets and pods of 2" High Explosive RP.(Two Gloworm on port and starboard outer pylon stations and two pods of 2" RP each containing 32 RP on the Inner pylons.
  • The target ship would give the Sea Vixen leader the Position and intended movement (PIM) i.e. Heading and Speed. Leader would then calculate the Release Sight Picture (RSP) for the ordnance release. This would be communicated to other aircraft in a pre arranged format. The RSP was where the target should appear on the Pilot Attack Sight (PAS) at weapon release taking into account the relative vector of the splash target (false wind) and the actual wind direction and velocity.
  • The Sea Vixen race track pattern would be set up knowing the Attack Heading of red 45° (45 ° off the Port Bow of the ship)
  • The Division would set off and when steady on the second leg would accelerate to 420 Kts at leaders command ready for attack. All armament switches were made at this point.
  • On the 3rd leg the leader would call the attack and pull up at a pre arranged distance and angle off the target. On reaching 20° nose up the leader would fire his Gloworms and then break hard left to circle and rejoin as number four at the rear of the formation.This was known as the reattack.
  • The flares would illuminate the target area.
  • Numbers 2,3 and 4 would tip in, in turn at 4000ft into a 20°dive attack from red 45°.
  • Number 2 would fire with the briefed RSP, while 3 and 4 would correct on fall of shot. Leader by this time had tagged on as the tail end charlie having changed his armanent switches from outer to inner pylons.
  • Aircraft would pass through the target pulling out of the dive by 500 ft and manoevre hard left to take up the race track again. The Division would now be in the order 2,3,4, Leader, having slowed to 360 kts and would reform using radar in long line astern again for further attacks.
  • This procedure would be repeated three times with lead aircraft changing on each attack. i.e. 2nd attack order 2,3,4,Ldr then 3rd attack order 3,4,Ldr,2, then 4th attack order 4,Ldr,2,3. Leader would find himself in front after the last attack. Each aircraft would have performed a reattack.
  • Mission complete the Division would return for a Night Deck Landing on the Aircraft Carrier.

Glow Worm Thoughts

This type of flying required special skills, nerves and practice. High speed and low level over the sea at night combined with high g manoevres effecting a day type attack having self illuminated the target caused many fatalities. Fleet Air Arm pilots practiced constantly low level high speed, low level flying on instruments. In a dual seat aircraft (Hawker Hunter) there would be a safety pilot monitoring while the practicing pilot would fly at all speeds up to 450 kts or so and up to 60 degress of bank at 500 feet over the sea. The practicing pilot would have his artificial horizon covered and would have a hood on his visor. This was called limited panel flying and was designed to speed up and sharpen pilot scanning of the instruments.

The following is to assist the reader come to their own conclusions.Content here is not the official reason for Sea Vixen losses and is provided to help the readers understanding.

  • There can be no doubt that the combination of high g, high speed and turning of the pilots head can lead to spatial disorientation, a phenomenon now well known and researched by Aviation Medicine experts.
  • Pilots heads were moving during the re attack because of a weapons switch that was positioned behind the pilots left elbow. This armament switch from outboard to inboard pylons had to be made by feel. The bulky survival clothing (Goon Suit) worn by crew made this difficult in the confined dark cockpit.
  • The Gloworm flares were notorious for not functioning fully and could cause a gloomy perception of unreality.
  • The reader may remember that the flares were fired on the 3rd leg at 20° nose up by the lead aircraft. These would illuminate or partially illuminate above the target area and the manoevring aircraft.
  • On tip in for the dive attack the aircraft would see a line of light descending at 45° to the left. The forward launch speed of the lead aircraft would mean the flares did not illuminate in a vertical line.
  • The overwhelming power of the human brain will attribute this 45° visual line as the natural and normal horizon of the earth. With all the distractions of weapons switches being changed, combined with formation keeping and high speed with high g turns while instrument flying it would not be difficult to agree that the pilot was in an area of extreme disorientation.
  • Pilots are trained in this situation to rely on their instruments, to believe their instruments and not their own feelings. One must surmise that there were times in this environment when a human mind looked at this 45° flare false horizon, accepted this as the correct horizon and flew with 45° of left bank thinking he was wings level. A false visual reference illusion.
  • The terrible consequence of this was when the pilot pulled out of the dive at 450kts and 500 ft to break left and reform the formation, the aircraft would fly into the sea

In approximately 1967 a very distinguished Fleet Air Arm Pilot, Lt. Cdr. "Nobby" Hall RN. a Korean war veteran, was commisioned by the Ministry of Defence to produce a report on the accident rate of the Sea Vixen with recommendations for change.

We are now in the year 2007 and it is hoped to gain access to this previously classified document. What we do know is that there were new rules with regard to Navy pilots night flying.

  • Continuity and currency from shore bases in night flying skills after a period of inactivity at sea were required before flying at night from an Aircraft Carrier.
  • First tour pilots were to be Section leaders and not Divisional Leaders

Importantly with technical advances the Gloworm attack was abandoned in favour of a Lepus Flare Night Attack. A dedicated single Sea Vixen illuminator would toss a single Lepus flare of several million candlepower for other aircraft to attack the target. The target area was as if daylight.

The reattack was now fiished along with any further fatalities.

This article is dedicated to those young fine brave Sea Vixen crews who lost their lives practicing this attack during a period of great importance for their country.


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